Fun police attacked 14/11/2012
Janet Albrechsten launches a withering attack on neo-wowsers who would drag society down to their own humourless, unintelligent, belligerent level.
DID you hear the joke about the earnest politician who proposed banning all jokes whether told publicly or privately about matters deemed untouchable by a committee of self-appointed moral guardians? Of course, you didn’t.
Were it a joke, we couldn’t get to the punchline without being labelled sexist or racist or some such other dreadful tag by the unofficial joke police monitoring our conversations. More likely you haven’t heard this joke because maybe it’s not a joke at all. We are fast becoming a humourless, sanctimonious society where the growing lack of civility is a symptom of our failure to grasp the importance of humour.
Without humour, civility cannot flourish. The tendency to label every joke or passing comment we consider to be in poor taste as something more, something sexist, misogynist, or racist is a sign of a New Puritanism taking hold.
This New Puritanism was inadvertently exposed in Sydney’s The Sun-Herald when on Sunday it reported comments made by a Sydney barrister at a St John’s College dinner in September. A respected lawyer, Jeffrey Phillips SC, gave a dinner address at the residential college at the University of Sydney to more than 250 students, staff and guests. The theme of Phillips’s speech was the importance of people being tolerant and respectful of each other. Phillips, who attended St Johns College in the 1970s, didn’t try to gloss over the recent appalling events at the college, which included a first-year student suffering a bleeding stomach after a dangerous and stupid initiation night for freshers. The barrister said that “contrition is truly shown by having learnt from the experience and making sure that such mistakes don’t recur. Only a knave or a fool fails to learn from one’s mistakes,” he said.
Uninterested in this thought-provoking subject, The Sun-Herald splashed a full page of self-righteous indignation about the first sentence of Phillips’s address. Doing what most good speakers do, Phillips tried to inject some humour into the start of the evening. He paid tribute to the “traditional custodians of this place, the Benedictines who came from the great English nation”. Many at the dinner laughed. Who among us hasn’t listened to robotic, insincere tributes to the traditional owners of our land?
Some didn’t find the joke funny. Fair enough. But the response from some of our more lemon-lipped moral guardians suggests something is seriously out of kilter. The Sun-Herald journalist, Eamonn Duff, found a furious Aborigine, Mark Spinks, who said he was “outraged” and “disturbed” and “almost speechless”. Alas, not too speechless. And, unsurprisingly, feminist Eva Cox was offered a chance to express her moral outrage. “It’s just an indication of how far the rot goes,” she said. The journalist also reported “senior staff” of Johns saying an indigenous student at the dinner remains “deeply traumatised”. Phillips, by the way, sent a letter of apology to the offended student.
It’s also worth noting that Northern Territory MP Bess Price this week questioned whether welcome to country ceremonies were meaningful to traditional people. “We don’t do that in communities. It’s just a recent thing,” Price said in response to a $6 million damages claim brought under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by Aboriginal man Shane Mortimer. Former University of Canberra vice-chancellor Don Aitkin attended a welcome to country ceremony by Mortimer. Aitkin later blogged that Mortimer “looks about as Aboriginal as I do”. Mortimer says he wants money for being offended. This ludicrous law sanctions an offence-taking industry.
Unless different rules apply according to one’s skin colour, if Price can criticise a welcome to country ceremony surely Phillips can gently mock the traditional custodians acknowledgment. Here is a sample of emails he received: “You are a disgusting person for playing this racist game.” “You make me sick.” “You are clearly not a fit and proper person to be engaging in legal practice.” “You owe the indigenous people an apology.”
Alas, rational, cool-headed analysis is anathema to the New Puritans. And just as the 17th century Puritans were not always consistent in their “dour prudery”, our New Puritans are also inconsistent when it comes to taking offence.
For example, in the same edition of The Sun-Herald it was entirely acceptable for the resident comic, Peter FitzSimons, to mock Mitt Romney for his Mormon beliefs. Equally, it’s called entertainment when the ABC’s Chaser boys poke fun at the Archbishop of Sydney and the Catholic Church as they did recently on The Hamster Wheel.
Declaring a joke or a comment in poor taste is one thing. Confecting outrage for an ulterior motive is altogether another thing, which is what the New Puritans do when they selectively find offence and discrimination.
Their purpose is entirely predictable: to censor words that challenge their beliefs.
The consequences of this humourless, stifling atmosphere are neither minor nor momentary. The Australian’s Bill Leak said it best in a recent email to me. Without breaching any private confidence, Leak said: “Civility and mutual respect thrive on humour, just as they wither and die without it.”
We tend to think of humour in a sophisticated society as akin to icing on a cake, making an already good life sweeter. Leak explains it is much more than this. “It’s no coincidence that the most intelligent people are also the funniest,” he wrote during our email exchange. “Great humour is as much a by-product of civilisation as great art, and without it we don’t have civility. I’ll bet that bloke who punished that 14-year-old (Pakistani) girl for wanting to go to school by shooting her in the head isn’t a very witty guy. Probably rather quick to take offence too, I’d say.”
Leak’s point is that humourless societies suffer from more than just a lack of laughs. To be sure, Australia is not Pakistan. But the yawning absence of humour in some quarters may deliver its own set of calamitous consequences for civility.
It’s bad enough, says Leak, that many of our political cartoons aren’t funny because cartoonists take themselves too seriously. What matters more, he says, is the lack of humour in the present political discourse.
The Australian’s brilliant artist is referring, of course, to the humourless girl-power government of Julia Gillard. While lack of humour infects both sides of politics, the Labor girls in particular need to loosen their pigtails.
Where is the sharp wit and genuine civility of former politicians such as Fred Daly, who said he had never made an enemy he could not be friends with? In Canberra today, there are far too few Fred Dalys and far too many Tanya Pliberseks. Beyond Canberra too, many are enforcing the New Puritanism in preposterous circumstances. And ironically, those who speak most about the need for more modern-day civility are the same people discouraging the best solution. We could all laugh a little more. Especially at ourselves.